Spoiled by the spoils

Formula 1 pay cheques are staggering – but it’s not as if drivers are in short supply…

Kimi Räikkönen famously encountered stormy waters late last year, when his ‘Lotus’ team’s payments dried up. The situation highlighted an oddity of modern-day Formula 1, in which top-flight superstar drivers have been commanding annual fees of £20 million and more – but for what good reason?

Market forces are cited, comparing F1 pay rates with those commanded by the global superstars of golf, tennis or soccer, and in America for those parochial big names of men’s netball and rounders. But within F1 that doesn’t quite chime, because it has only 22 berths available – with dozens clamouring for every one of them – and probably 16 of those berths stand less chance of winning a race than the proverbial snowball in a turbocharger. In all these other big-money sports, the price is set by prowess in individual competition, person versus person, as in tennis or golf, or in multiple team rivalry, many teams versus many other teams – as in soccer.

Way back in 1961 the absolute international superstar of the day was of course Stirling Moss, then in his heyday. And in that year he won umpteen F1 races at both World Championship and non-title level, also won in sports and GT cars, provided commercial endorsements for a range of products, made personal appearances when available, and for his pains – and at accepted high risk to life and limb – he earned some £30-35,000. That’s all.

Adjusting for UK inflation since 1961, the Maestro’s contemporary income represents a present value of £566-660,000. Not even close to a million quid, never mind £20-million plus.

Certainly, Stirling’s contemporary reward was darned good money by 1961 standards (and as he says today, he’s confident that he had a darned sight more fun than modern stars are allowed to enjoy). Those earnings were at the contemporary reward level of sporting superstardom and worldwide celebrity. But it’s interesting how much more highly such celebrity now seems to be valued – and perhaps how much money is being cascaded willy-nilly into a bunch of 22 blokes chasing one another around and around in relatively superb safety for probably 90 minutes, and at most two hours, on a Sunday afternoon.

Rummaging around the bomb site that passes for my office, I came across an Automobilclub von Deutschland document dated January 6, 1969, listing the freshly agreed “Common conditions for World Championship (F1) races in Europe”. Twenty cars entered by the F1 teams would command a common purse to be offered by all European-based GP organisers of 300,000 Swiss francs per race. If only 18 cars started, the pot would be cut to 290,000 francs and if only 16 started then it shrank further to 280,000. Travel expenses would also be paid to the teams, adding an additional 4000 francs per car. Prize money would then be paid down to 20th place – ranging from 40,000 francs for first, falling 5000 francs per place down to fifth and bottoming out at 1000 for any result from 15th-20th.

At the foot of this document, the AvD bean counters helpfully added contemporary January 1969 currency conversion rates, 1000 Swiss francs then converting to £96 15s sterling.

So how do the primary payments above compare at 2014 values? If F1 had simply kept pace with inflation, then each Grand Prix promoter today would pay the present equivalent of 1969’s £29,025 to the teams to compete – that’s now £404,820 per race – not even half a million pounds – to be divided between those 20 starters.

Then we should add 1969’s £387 per car travel expenses – another £5397 by 2014 value. A World Championship Grand Prix race win would then pay the overjoyed 1969 victor £3870 – which would mean a Grand Prix race first prize in cash today of £53,976.

Finishing sixth – as last of the World Championship point scorers – would earn the happy recipient 12,000 Swiss francs (£1161), which in value terms equates to £16,192 here in 2014. And trailing home 20th would have paid a consolation prize of 1000 francs – £96.75 in 1969, or £1349 today.

So if F1 racing payments had merely kept pace with 1969-2014 inflation, would the Vettels, Hamiltons, Alonsos and Räikkönens of my parallel universe look like commanding £20 million price tags for a single season’s racing (and sponsor-pleasuring) today?

Since £20 million would have bought and paid for all the entries in almost 50 Grand Prix races, it hardly seems so. One gets the feeling that over time the F1 market’s perspective has become curiously skewed.

If drivers are denied an F1 place, they have nowhere else whatsoever offering that kind of money. They rely totally upon the fixation of their paymasters upon F1 to the exclusion of motor sport as a whole. If those paymasters all agreed not to pay so much what would the drivers do – take their talents elsewhere? Where, exactly?